And the Award Goes To…Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman; photo by Lise Metzger.

On the eve of its 85th Anniversary Season, Jacob’s Pillow was thrilled to name choreographer, performer, writer, educator, and speaker Liz Lerman as the recipient of the 2017 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award.

“Liz is a creative visionary,” says Jacob’s Pillow Director Pamela Tatge. “Since the 1970s, she has built bridges to other domains and expanded where dance lives in our society.” Read the full announcement here.

The Pillow sat down with Liz to speak about her life’s work and how to push the dance art form forward.

The Pillow has been a constant presence throughout your career: you had your debut here on the Inside/Out stage in 1985 with Liz Lerman and Seniors; worked with us in our Curriculum in Motion program; presented works like The Good Jew? and Hallelujah on our stages; performed in co-presentation engagements at MASS MoCA; and much more. How has a place like the Pillow, with all its rich dance history, had an impact on your career?

It’s wonderful to have one’s work seen from the context of the larger fabric of dance in the United States and beyond. The idea of belonging isn’t just belonging because you want to be with the “in crowd.” It’s belonging in that one’s efforts are part of something bigger.

The Pillow in my case is one of those constants that have allowed my work to become a part of something bigger, and I really appreciate that. In the early years when I was just trying to figure out the presence of older people on the dance stage—what does it mean for them to be dancing and how does that even work?—sure enough, there’s the Pillow, giving me an opportunity to experiment. And when those senior adults from Becket came up and performed on Inside/Out, they of course brought with them their families, many of whom have lived in that region for generations but had never been to the Pillow. So not only did I feel like my work could be seen in that larger way, I also felt like I was contributing to a way of thinking about dance. So that was kind of a divine moment.

An important focus of your research is inclusion and bringing the public into the work. How do you think dance presenters can create more inclusive environments?

There’s a line in my book, Hiking the Horizontal, “I’m not fragmented, the world is.” I’m just fulfilling what I think is the fullness of who I am, and also the fullness of what dance is. The fact that it got narrowed in particular ways and it’s presented in certain ways, that is not the tradition, that’s the convention. Conventions keep us from fullness. Dance, traditionally, is part of everything.

One of the things that it requires is that we break the hierarchy of formal performance as the absolute apex, and consider all this other stuff as less-than. When I’m doing workshops, I am engaging deeply and fully, it involves my whole self. It doesn’t diminish the fact that I adore performing on concert stages. These things, they’re different, but they bear out a certain kind of equivalence for me in their power and their impact.

The thing that I think people misunderstand is it does push the art form forward. I don’t think it works to say the only place that innovation and invention is going to happen is on the theatre stage—although I love when that happens. But you can be in situations where you can’t control as much as you can on stage, and things happen that force you to change what the art form can do and what it looks like, and it’s startling. That’s the part I wish people understood.

“It’s not ‘inclusion is good for these people’—no, it’s good for the art form.”

Watch Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 2000’s Hallelujah: In Praise of Fertile Fields:

You’ve done a lot of interesting collaborations recently, including Blood, Muscle, Bone with Urban Bush Women and Healing Wars, an investigation of the impact of war on medicine. We’re all wondering: what’s next for Liz Lerman?

I’m starting a project I’m pretty excited about. I was in Edinburgh and I saw an exhibit called Wicked Bodies; it’s 500 years of drawings of witches, by some of our most famous artists. It’s just wild to see depictions of women’s bodies that are hideous and potent and sometimes pornographic, which often seem like a reaction to the threat of a woman having power. I’m interested in some side stories that come from that. For example, I think many of the women who are in prison right now start out as victims. And it’s interesting to think about what is the criminalization process that gets us to prison or gets us to witches. What is that? The other thing that interests me very much is that this is cross-cultural. I mean every culture has witches. I am very interested in the nature of small societies protecting themselves within larger societies that do not like them so much.

Another thing that is new is my work at Arizona State University. It’s an amazing, innovative place and I’m getting to work with great artists, scholars, and researchers from many different backgrounds. We’re working on one of the great issues of our time: equity, which is at the heart of everything we’re doing, at the largest public arts school in the country.

You’ve received many accolades in your career, and now you’re being honored with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. Why do you think it’s important for presenters to not just present but also recognize artists?

I think the recognition is trying to cast a light on this larger set of ideas, to get more people to think about the relationship between stage work, learning, engagement, and the role of the artist as citizen. I think the recognition is suggesting what’s possible if we question the status quo, and recognize what’s just a convention that’s constraining us rather than a tradition with history and meaning.

“I hope that’s what the Pillow is saying to me, is we have respected your willingness to push boundaries, and we are hoping that continues.”

The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award is particularly special to me, partly because it’s such an iconic history, and because in a way the Pillow has also carved out a really special place for itself in the world. So I feel really, really lucky.

This fall you are participating in the Pillow’s regional convening of New England choreographers, where participants will share work, discuss career-building issues, and be introduced to your Critical Response Process. How important is it to you to share your knowledge and experience with young artists in that way?

I love sharing ideas and processes and tools, it’s been a massive obsession of mine since the beginning. It’s one of those things that I think has been maybe counter-intuitive, that is not to keep my work mysterious, but to actually try to organize it, to make it available to people, and to unearth the thousands of variations that people make of those processes. I think of it leading not to replication but to abundance, and I love that. It’s very satisfying to me to work through these things, and I’m working very hard to try and make them available publicly, for free.

I’ll very interested to see what the nature of the sharing is. I’m in awe of how young people are operating, how they’re organizing, how they’re thinking, and the speed with which they get things done and move through stuff, I mean that’s awesome. So I’m quite reciprocal in my curiosity.